Two bills passed by state lawmakers this week affect Pasco County: One redraws the boundaries of the tiny town of St. Leo and ends a long-running dispute over property taxes. The other forces utility companies to improve their water quality, including at west Pasco's Summertree development south of State Road 52.
"I'm happy that the citizens of Florida will finally have a way to be heard. That's the biggest thing," Summertree resident Richard Neilson said after House and Senate members backed the Consumer Water Protection Act this week.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, sponsored the legislation that now awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature after reading news accounts about Summertree residents' fight with water provider Utilities Inc. of Florida.
For years, the residents have complained about the yellowish color and bad taste of their water. They were floored last November when, despite those problems, Utilities Inc. won a 20 percent rate hike from the Public Service Commission, the state's utility regulator.
Simpson's bill does three main things: It establishes quality standards for taste, color and odor, and it allows the commission to consider those standards in addition to existing safety levels when deciding rate cases.
The bill also gives utility customers a mechanism to appeal to the PSC to demand improvements in water quality. Triggering a review will require support of 65 percent of a community's residents.
"This bill (will) prevent any other consumers in Florida from going through what my constituents in Summertree have struggled with for close to 20 years," Simpson said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
"When this bill becomes law, a clear process will exist so that consumers can get real resolution, and for the first time the PSC will be able to consider the taste, color and odor of the water that people use in their homes as they oversee these utilities."
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, who worked for passage in the House, called the legislation a "landmark pro-consumer water bill."
Support in both chambers was strong and crossed party lines. Corcoran said both Republican and Democratic lawmakers statewide have heard from constituents frustrated by utilities, accounting for the bill's bipartisan support. The House backed the measure 99-15 and the Senate passed it unanimously.
The other legislation affecting Pasco, HB 1401, officially redraws the town of St. Leo's boundaries. It shrinks the town, deannexing 85 households within the Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club into unincorporated Pasco County.
The move is a windfall for the homeowners who have pushed for the deannexation for more than a decade, arguing they pay extra taxes without receiving additional services. Most of Lake Jovita already sits outside St. Leo.
As a result, the homeowners will save an average of $600 per household in property taxes, according to the bill's analysis. St. Leo, meanwhile, will lose $50,000 in tax revenue.
Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, sponsored the legislation after it drew support from St. Leo officials who worried the town might be dissolved unless the deannexation occurred.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.